Boccaccio’s Ladies

Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75) addressed his monumental Decameron, a fourteenth-century collection of one hundred novelle (“tales”) narrated during the Black Plague of 1348, to “graziosissime donne” (“most gracious ladies”), rather than to the typical male audience of the Middle Ages. He was especially keen to reach out to those female readers who suffered the pain of love. Unlike men in love, who have many ways to “alleviate or remove” the disquieting thoughts of love (they can hawk, hunt, fish, ride, gamble), women remain couped up indoors. “Out of fear and shame, [they] keep the flames of love hidden within their delicate breasts” (trans. W. Rebhorn).

The Decameron, newly translated by Wayne Rebhorn (Norton, 2013), is often seen as the “human comedy,” an earthy, humanist, proto-Renaissance counterpoint to Dante’s eminently medieval Divine Comedy. Whereas Dante prepares the soul for a Christian afterlife, Boccaccio’s focuses on the earthly adventures of his merchants, prostitutes, bankers, kings, slaves, and beggars with apparently little concern for the heavens above.

At least that’s the standard story. In truth, Boccaccio was more connected to Dante’s vision—and its Christian afterlife—than most realize. He was one of Dante’s earliest and most important promoters, writing a Treatise in Praise of Dante around 1350 and lecturing on The Divine Comedy in Florence’s Santo Stefano church in 1373. By then the aging Boccaccio had come to reject the more erotic elements of his youthful Decameron, as he spent his final years in intense Christian devotion.

Dante condemned Francesca da Rimini to the Circle of the Lustful because of her adulterous affair with her brother-in-law Paolo. The betrayal came about because one day Francesca and Paolo were reading “per diletto” (“for pleasure”), of Lancelot and Guinevere’s embrace. Now in Dante you cannot simply read per diletto: all aesthetic pleasure must be grounded in Christian morality. That Boccaccio would allow–indeed, urge–his gentle ladies to read for pleasure and pleasure alone makes a profound break with the dogmatic Christian view that art should never separate itself from religion. Renaissance humanism is many things: the recuperation of Greco-Roman culture, the emergence of a rationalist and scientific worldview, the formation of the first modern states. High on this list ranks the freedom of artistic expression (and, in the case of our gentle lady readers, artistic appreciation) from religious doctrine that Boccaccio promoted.

It’s no wonder that The Decameron would inspire so many Renaissance artists. In 1483, Lorenzo il Magnifico commissioned Botticelli to paint four episodes from Boccaccio’s tale of Nastagio degli Onesti.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 3

Figure 3

Figure 4

Figure 4

The story is not for the faint of heart. To free himself from the cruelty of a woman he is in love with, the young nobleman Nastagio degli Onesti leaves Ravenna and sets up an elegant camp a few miles outside the city. While there he witnesses the gruesome spectacle of a woman pursued by mastiff hounds tearing at her flesh (figure 1) and a bloodthirsty knight. When Nastagio tries to intervene and protect the damsel, the spectral knight warns him away. He  and his lover, in an infernal inversion of the gentle Paolo and Francesca, are doomed to an eternity of slaughter: “every time I catch her,” he tells Nastagio, “I kill her with the same sword with which I slew myself” (figure 2). Nastagio brings his lady along with her family to see the spectacle (figure 3), which frightens her so much that she agrees to marry the man whom she had once spurned (figure 4).

I suppose it is a “happy ending” of sorts, but brilliantly, ambiguously so. Boccaccio was too shrewd and subtle a writer not to suggest that a woman coerced into marriage by a scene of torture could hardly be described as fortunate and free. The world he inhabited was deeply hierarchical, with clearly allotted roles for men and woman, master and servant, noble and pauper. And yet his Decameron also reveals a more fluid world with a rising middle class that gets ahead through savvy and street smarts. Above all, his book carves out new possibilities for women, transforming what had been a male literary space into a place for gentle ladies.